September 26th, 1916.
I hope you and father are well. I was very glad to hear that cousin Michael is to come home soon. I wish I could tell you that I was returning as well. It will be some months before I am given leave to return to Ireland. I imagine the harvest should soon be in. I hope the summer has been better for you than it has for me. It has been a heavy couple of weeks since the death of Mister Kettle.
As I said in my last letter, we had moved to Carnoy for a rest and some time off the front line. It was much needed and I saw a marked change in the men. Once they had rested and been fed and been paid they began to sing. It wasn’t long before they had cleaned themselves up, all our boots and belt buckles were shining. At least for a little while.
We arrived at Ypres on the twenty first. It was raining. It seems to be the main feature of the landscape here. The men we were relieving were haggard and worn. Many were suffering badly from trench foot. The base of our trench is under a foot of water. It is fetid and rank from the years of fighting. This has dampened the men’s spirits greatly.
The rain causes frequent collapse of the trench walls. The supports give way and you have to take care not to be crushed by the mudslide. The worst thing about it is the smell. Two years of fighting has left the trench walls packed with corpses. I came across a trench collapse yesterday. I rushed to it seeing an arm protruding from the muck. As I pulled on it, the arm came away, rank and rotted and full of maggots. I retched terribly. Some engineers came along a short time later to fix the trench wall.
Today we executed two men. They hadn’t been with us for very long. An officer told me they had been transferred from another unit. It was quite obvious why they had been transferred. They were defeatists. Men consumed by the fear of death. That is not to say such thoughts don’t weigh on all of us, but it was all they could talk about. Privates Hawe and Browne were there names. They spoke of death constantly. There were forever speculating on their chances of being done in by a trench mortar, or asphyxiated by gas, or done to death by some brutal sniper. It set the rest of the men on edge. Eventually the officer in charge had enough and had them court marshalled. It was too damaging for moral.
It brings us to four men executed in the 9th Battalion this month. The fiftieth since January. Private McKenna joked with me earlier that at this rate the German’s won’t have to shoot any of us. That is not to say the Germans haven’t been trying. They have been launching regular trench raids but mostly they just wait with their snipers. A single hair over the trench wall is a death sentence. They don’t need to force the issue. The weather is as likely to kill us as they are.
We have had some good news though. The French are doing wonderfully further down the line so we’ve been told. I’m quite certain that you will hear news about the French success before I do given our poor communications. The men are all talking about those new inventions as well, the tanks. An officer further up the line saw them at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette on the fifteenth. He said is was a terrifying sight to behold, surging hulks of metal. People weren’t really sure how to react, whether to follow them closely or let them streak on ahead. The Germans were terrified, the poor devils. I’m not sure I’d be much better facing one of those beasts.
We were talking about them earlier. Lieutenant Kearns, who is our oldest surviving officer, was an English teacher before the war. He was convinced that the tanks were created by the author H.G. Wells. We all thought him mad until he explained. He told us of a story published by Mister Wells in the Strand Magazine some ten years ago. It was entitled The Land Ironclad. He insisted that Mister Wells had been involved given the descriptions of the tank.
It is all a rather fantastic story but if these new creations help to end the war sooner then I should hope we get a thousand more. In any case I will write to you again as soon as I can. My watch is due to start shortly.
Pvt. Peter Keegan.
Cillian Fearon | Short Story Serialist